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  • Plover Plan Launched for Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve

    By VIC COX

    Cristina Sandoval manages the Coal Oil Point Reserve, at her back, where a snowy plover chick hatched this summer.

    For a small shorebird--adults weigh about an ounce and grow to around six inches in length--the western snowy plover can kick up large controversies.
    Most of the passion is generated by people who feel they--and their dogs--are unreasonably denied access to beaches where plovers roost. Others counter that the birds, whose numbers have declined so much that the federal government added them to the Endangered Species List in 1993 as a "threatened" animal, deserve protection before they are shoved to the brink of extinction.
    Among the beaches in Santa Barbara County where western snowy plovers live at least part of the year is Devereux (or Sands) Beach inside UCSB's Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve (COPR). A plan to minimize disturbance to the up to 180 plovers that roost here 11 months of the year has been submitted to the California Coastal Commission.
    A management plan for the entire 157-acre reserve is also under development, but due to the birds' precarious situation protecting the plover has gained priority, said COPR Director Cristina Sandoval. New proposals for use and protection of the coastline between Isla Vista and Sandpiper Golf Course (see story on page 1) have further delayed the COPR management plan. Meanwhile, the Devereux Slough plovers have come up with surprises of their own.
    The tan-backed, white-chested birds usually lay eggs in well-camouflaged nests on sand spits, gravel bars, sand dunes, and salt pans. That had not happened since 1983 at the reserve, and Sandoval feared that the nesting plovers were disturbed too often to allow breeding.
    She could hardly believe it when a routine plover count turned up two new chicks last June. Her delight was dampened the day of the discovery by a crow killing one of the chicks.
    "I was so excited I couldn't sleep that night," she recalled. Part of her sleeplessness was due to the urgency of setting up a system to protect the remaining chick and its father. (Female plovers generally leave the fledgling with the male while they seek another mate.) Volunteers helped out and within four weeks the chick was able to fly with its flock.
    The plover hatchings demonstrated, Sandoval said, "that they can breed in a place they had once abandoned for breeding. That was not known before."
    It also heightened the importance of their management plan. Based on research by Kevin Lafferty, a United States Geological Survey biologist and Sandoval's husband, the plover habitat was divided into 12 zones and analyzed for use by humans and by birds. A zone was selected for a rope fence that will, Sandoval estimates, "protect 90 percent of the plovers and inconvenience 3 percent of the people." The zone is about 300 meters of mostly dry sand near the mouth of the slough.
    The rest of the plan, which Sandoval has partially implemented, calls for enforcement of leash laws, halting human activity at night, and closing a trail. The rope fences off less than 10 percent of the area previously identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical plover habitat.
    Signs warning beach-goers of the plovers' zone and the need to leash dogs are at the main entrance to the beach. Sandoval admitted at a public discussion of the plan last summer that signage so far has been ineffective in reducing disturbances by people and dogs. But she is not authorized to enforce the rules, and law enforcement's support is essential, she said. Currently, trained docents serve as both monitors and educators in the afternoons and on weekends when beach use is highest. Volunteers can reach Sandoval at x5092.